In another world, I’m wearing a Fashion Nova bodycon dress and going out to dinner with three of my hottest friends. We all have immaculately smooth hair, pristine pedicures accented by white nail polish and lip filler that breaches just beyond the label of “subtle.” We make an Instagram boomerang of us cheers-ing every $18 cocktail we order. At the end of the meal, we obviously order espresso martinis.
For several reasons, I’d love for this to be me. Pandemic aside, it’s a style of carefully calculated basicness I’ve never quite been able to achieve. Each aspect is essential, from the look to the Instagramming to, oddly enough, the espresso martini. Because despite a long history of coffee-based cocktails taking on a masculine connotation, the espresso martini has become (and I say this lovingly) the ultimate dumb-bitch cocktail.
Acclaimed London bartender Dick Bradsell is said to have invented the cocktail in the late 1980s after a model asked him to make something that would “wake her up, then fuck her up,” a legend that only boosts the stupid-but-sexy association. But in its composition, it’s not all that different from other booze-coffee combos: Traditionally, it calls for vodka, a coffee liqueur like Kahlua, simple syrup and a shot of espresso. Most other coffee cocktails follow a similar formula, usually mixing vodka or whiskey with a coffee liqueur, brewed coffee and whatever other creams and sugars might add a dessert-y kick.
It’s not the use of vodka or liqueurs that’s the culprit here, though — after all, the White Russian is a vodka drink synonymous with “The Dude.” Rather than the contents of the drink, the espresso martini’s reputation likely comes down to its vessel. Like every beverage ordered on Sex and the City, the V-shaped stemware immediately makes the espresso martini a “girly” drink among those insecure enough to care.
There is one aspect of the espresso martini, however, that warrants whatever criticism it may face: Unlike other coffee cocktails, an espresso martini requires, well, espresso. Most bars that serve coffee drinks can brew up a pot of coffee to serve a couple rounds without much trouble, whereas an espresso martini requires a specific piece of machinery that typically only makes one at a time. For a busy bartender, I imagine that must be a complete nightmare.
A TikTok from bartender @bythebarcode roleplays the problem well. In the video, a customer approaches and asks if they make espresso martinis at the restaurant. “Yes, please keep your voice down,” he says. “Are you with the bridal shower in the back? This drink is contagious. If I make one for her, everyone is going to want one.” From there, a gaggle of different women (all played by @bythebarcode in various headbands) start calling out, “Did I hear espresso martinis???” and “One espresso martini for me-ni!” before the bartender starts scrambling trying to make them all. (The video ends with the bartender sipping one and saying, “Damn that’s good.”)
Unless a restaurant is equipped to make multiple shots of espresso at a time (or just uses cold brew concentrate), it really is a pain-in-the-ass cocktail to put together. When a group of young hotties orders them together, it probably does make said group of young hotties the enemy to both waiter and bartender. That said, that is a problem with the restaurant’s expectations of their capabilities, rather than the drink itself.
In a way, this rift encapsulates why the espresso martini is the signature dumb-bitch cocktail — like us bimbos, the espresso martini is labeled as needlessly high-maintenance, when its existence and perception are merely responses to its material conditions. In reality, it’s no more high maintenance than any cocktail requiring a shaker and more than two ingredients, and it has the potential to be helluva lot more fun. When a girl posts a photo of an espresso martini on her Instagram story, she’s announcing to the world that she will likely be getting properly inebriated, but still wants to put forth an aesthetic slightly more refined than the vodka Red Bull.
More than that, a single shot of espresso combined with vodka and a hint of sweetness is indeed a nearly perfect after-dinner beverage. It’s actually less caffeine than a cup of coffee, and lacks the abundance of cream many other coffee drinks have that would almost certainly leave me bloated. Sure, science says that you can’t really experience an upper and a downer at the same time, but the espresso martini dares to attempt otherwise.
Maybe I look like a dumb bitch ordering one, but quite frankly, that’s just a bonus.